Review of Rowan Williams’ Christ the Heart of Creation

In The Edge of Words, based on his 2013 Gifford lectures, Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, offers a metaphysical account of language. He considers the place of talk about God in the context of human habits of speaking in the book’s final two chapters.[1] In a review symposium on The Edge of Words in the journal Modern Theology, theologian Graham Ward contends, and Williams himself grants, that “a Christological agenda [was] struggling to get through.”[2] Williams acknowledges that he stuck “fairly closely to the prolegomena to theology rather than address the Christological question directly and in more detail.”[3] He confesses that “what the book was meant to open up” was “a metaphysic congruent with what [Christians] believe we have received in the community of faith” in the incarnation of Jesus Christ.[4] Williams’ new book Christ the Heart of Creation excavates the “buried Christology” within The Edge of Words.[5]

With its origins as the 2016 Huslean Lectureship given in the School of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, Christ the Heart of Creation offers a serious, sophisticated, and rigorous Christology. As a meditation on the “maturation of Christological language,” this is arguably Williams’ most important theological book.[6] It brings together the varied strands of Williams’ thought over the past five decades: patristic theology, Eastern Christianity, medieval and Reformation theology, modern theology, philosophy, ethics, and spirituality. Reflecting his vocation as priest, Williams hopes his book will serve to prompt readers to look harder and longer at how the Incarnation can shape a way of being in the world.

Williams’ Christology does not attend to the life, teachings, and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. Nor does the book offer a detailed theological interpretation of the paschal mystery of Jesus. Scattered across the book, Williams teases but does not develop the connection between Christology and prayer. He has focused on these dimensions of Christology in other scholarly and popular writings. Instead, Christ the Heart of Creation renders fruitful the richness in, and the virtue of, the Christological grammar that rules faithful speech and thought about the person and nature of Jesus Christ.

The book’s basic argument is that Jesus Christ is the key to understanding Christian conviction and speech about the relationship between God and creation. Williams says that the eternal Word made flesh in Jesus was not a suspension or displacement of, nor an intervention in, the process of the finite world. Rather, the Incarnation is the claim that a particular, finite agency (Jesus) was the historical and bodily location of infinite self-gift and unlimited divine love. God’s redemption of the world in Jesus Christ, therefore, cannot be described as just another episode in history. It is a “supernatural” act, declares Williams, “bringing about what no particular agency within creation could have done in virtue of its own immanent finite capacity” (5). Indeed, the utterly new and complete (salvific) difference Jesus makes was so profound and comprehensive that Christian thought was led to associate this “something out of nothing” with the basic freedom of God the Creator. How, then, can Christian thinking conceptually and linguistically put together utter divine creativity with the reality of Jesus’ humanity?

As Christian thinkers attempted to address this question, conceptual issues and problems (stumbling blocks) were not due to “the importation of alien considerations, the agenda of ‘Greek philosophy’ or whatever” (117). Rather, what seemed to be highly abstruse Christological debates in the patristic and medieval periods were produced by issues rooted in the New Testament’s story of the meaning and significance of the difference Jesus makes. For Williams, “expressions of dramatic commitment to Jesus of Nazareth as the centre and animating power of Christian existence and prayer are precisely what generated the thickets of analysis and speculation” (xvi). Seeking to pray to and speak about Jesus as the verbal act of God in a unique and unparalleled way posed serious (scandalous) intellectual problems concerning how to conceptualize and articulate the relationship between God and creation.

The history of Christology, says Williams, thus deals with what has been said about Jesus across the centuries as Christian thought advanced a metaphysical account of the relationship between God and creation. As Williams unfolds this doctrinal tradition, he examines a series of historically successive voices (the Apostle Paul, Augustine, Maximus the Confessor, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Erich Przywara) in the evolutionary refinement in Christological grammar as it shapes and clarifies an ontology of the finite and infinite “as determinatively embodied in Jesus Christ.”[7] More specifically, the book’s first half tracks this conceptual and linguistic refinement from the New Testament to Nicaea and Chalcedon, from Augustine on the unity of Christ to early Byzantine Christology. The second half of the book explores ways that Reformation Christologies faithfully continued to clarify Christological grammar. Williams selects two pairs of theologians from the Reformed and Lutheran traditions: John Calvin and Martin Luther and Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Across a two-millennial arc of Christological thought, Williams identifies a singular, defining line: What Christology strives to articulate is the “real and deepest paradox,” namely, the Incarnation shows that “only the Creator can exhibit fully what it is to be a creature” (239).

Tracing how Christian thinkers have sought to clarify this paradox leads Williams to focus on two grammatical rules, which are presented in the book’s opening pages. These rules are the book’s steady drumbeat, establishing a rhythm for contemplating the conceptual issues that arise out of the New Testament’s story of the God-human Jesus. These rules are vital to the schemes of language and thought necessary for proper thinking about Christ’s nature and person. They do not restrict or confine the imagination but free it to re-imagine the relationship between the Creator and creation as revealed in Jesus.

Although he admits that Nicholas of Cusa does not receive the adequate treatment he deserves, Williams, in his introduction, clearly indicates that Cusanus’s non aliud principle (God is “not another thing”) ought to govern the language of the relationship between God and creation (xiv). In fact, Thomas Aquinas, Williams’ chief conversation partner in chapter one, articulated an understanding of the Creator-creation relationship nearly 150 years earlier which Cusanus expressed in his non aliud principle. This principle states that if God’s agency is completely free of constraint, influence, or pressure, and if God is the source and ground of every finite state of affairs, then God cannot be spoken of as a thing among other things in the universe. God is the One who is present to and sustains all created being, yet God is not a being alongside other beings. An infinite qualitative difference between God and creation exists. Thus, infinite and finite agencies do not share “the same metaphysical territory” nor “operate in the same mode” (21). From a Christological perspective, the principle declares that “the Word and Jesus are not two of anything” or “two ‘acts’ alongside each other.” Likewise, the Word is not “an element in the composition of Jesus,” nor is Jesus a component part of God’s life (36).

A second grammatical rule follows from the first one. Acknowledging his debt to Austin Farrer (particularly his 1948 Bampton Lectures), Williams, again, principally engages Aquinas. In light of the non aliud principle, the second maxim is that there is no competition, no rivalry, between God and creation. The relationship between the infinite and the finite is not one of mutual exclusion or opposition. Regarding the eternal Word made flesh, this rule indicates that the finite enacts “the infinite without ceasing to be finite” (5). In the Incarnation, the Creator lives a creaturely life in which there is “no diminishment of [Christ’s] divinity nor any violation of the integrity of his humanity.”[8]

On the one hand, these grammatical rules instruct that the Incarnation cannot mean the agency of the eternal Son of God “is added to or, worse, displaces an existing finite principle of personal agency” (14). Nor is it a mythological account in which the earthly life of Jesus is an episode in the life of a heavenly subject “which changes its metaphysical location” (14). Classical Christological heresies, such as Monophysitism, Nestorianism, Adoptionism, and Eutychianism—including their respective modern iterations—as well as modern Christological models of Jesus as a great moral teacher go sideways because they understand the infinite/finite relationship in ways that violate these grammatical rules.[9]

On the other hand, these two grammatical rules make it possible to speak faithfully and precisely of the finite reality of Jesus as the true, full, and complete embodiment of the infinite divine relatedness (120). As an historical individual united with the Word, Jesus’ finite agency is inseparable from the universal work of the divine Logos. This is not to say that the work of the Word’s universal action within creation depends upon Jesus’ agency. Rather, “wherever the one is, the other is there also, whether visibly or invisibly” (40). For Augustine no less than for Maximus the Confessor or Bonhoeffer, when eternal divine filiation is enacted “unsurpassably and uninterruptedly” in the unique humanity that is Christ’s, a new set of relations is created between divine life and humanity that becomes the vehicle for fulfillment and salvation (108). The union of infinite and finite in Christ creates a new, transformative capacity for communion between God and creation, as well as between human beings and between humans and creation.

If Thomas Aquinas’ metaphysical Christology serves as one intellectual bookend for Williams, shaping his arguments about Christological grammar from the book’s beginnings, the other is Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christology of Jesus Christ as the One for others. For Williams, Bonhoeffer supremely exemplifies the intrinsic connections between Christology and ethics. In Christ becoming human, Bonhoeffer claims the unity of the reality of God and the reality of the world. That the unity of the realities of God and the world are given only in the Christ reality is Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the non-competitive relationship between the infinite and the finite.

A key consideration for Williams is that Bonhoeffer’s Christological ethic is not an ethics of imitation but one of participation. Bonhoeffer claimed that God became human in Jesus Christ in order that human beings become truly human. Moreover, the eternal Word incarnate, as “a free divine act of self-immersion” in the world, “seeks to extend itself as human agents are incorporated into Christ, and Christ’s solidarity with the whole world is formed in them” (203). Discipleship is not moral imitation or a literal repetition of Jesus. Rather, it centers on “catching the rhyme” of the new humanity of Jesus in one’s own life and action. The human ethical action analogous to God’s action to reconcile and re-create humanity is human beings acting responsibly on the behalf of, and in solidarity with, others. Acting wholeheartedly for others is to participate in the reality of Christ. Such participation in the Christ reality becomes a social reality in the community of believers. I will say that a highlight of the book is that as he considers Bonhoeffer’s model of Christ’s existence for others as the foundation of the ethical and spiritual vocation of the Church, Williams offers a remarkable reading of Bonhoeffer’s 1932/1933 Christology lectures.[10]

Indeed, throughout his book Williams engages with a striking range of voices, and two of them in particular may be unexpected: the Reformer John Calvin and the German Catholic theologian Erich Przywara. Calvin has not been a typical interlocutor in William’s writings. In his history of Christology, Williams views Calvin as a bridge figure. On the one hand, the Geneva pastor upholds the classical Christological tradition culminating in Aquinas, defending it against late medieval attempts at its dissolution (Williams is quite critical of Don Scotus and, to a lesser degree, Martin Luther). On the other hand, by connecting the complex analysis of Christological grammar more closely than earlier theologians with the narrative of the Gospels, in Williams’ estimation, Calvin laid a foundation for future creative reinterpretations of classical Christology found in Bonhoeffer and Barth.

Przywara’s choice as a dialogue partner may surprise some readers. The influence of Barth’s strong, negative (mis)interpretation of Przywara’s understanding of the analogia entis rendered Przywara, a great influence on Hans Urs von Balthasar and Karl Rahner, nearly forgotten among English-speaking scholars. Today, the richness of the Jesuit theologian’s thought is finding renewed interest among anglophone theologians. That Christ, the analogy of being, is the fulfillment of all creation, as Przywara argues, captures Williams attention. Williams is clear that Przywara’s complex reworking of analogy, paradox, and rhyme within a Christological frame is an important contemporary clarification of the grammar of the classical Christological synthesis. He also sees connections between the aesthetical dimensions of Przywara’s conception of the relationship between the infinite and finite and the ethical implications of Bonhoeffer’s Christology. Reading the Philippians’ Christ hymn, Przywara understands redemption as occurring through divine patience resting in human ordinariness. This suggests that when the human creature rests in the ordinary rather than attempting to be like God, creaturely finitude opens pathways to divine transformation. Here Williams discerns a resonance between Przywara’s thought and Bonhoeffer’s notion that acting-in-solidarity for others in the contingencies and complexities of everyday life is a mediation of participation in divine life. In the future, I hope Williams explores in greater detail the connections he sees between these two theologians.

The nearly absent Holy Spirit from Williams’ Christology is my only complaint with the book. Williams briefly considers the agency of the Holy Spirit when he engages Calvin’s Christology. Yet, why is the Spirit not more integral to Williams given that the filiation of the Son to the Father is in the Spirit? That the eternal fecundity of the Spirit draws the Father and Son into reciprocal self-donating love? That the Spirit is the intratrinitarian witness to the love between the Father and the Son? That Jesus Christ lives the Son’s Spirit-given intimacy with the Father humanly? That the Creator Spirit rests upon the body of the Son in the Incarnation? That Jesus is not only the beneficiary but also the giver of the Spirit? In other writings, Williams has addressed such questions. Why he did not attend to these pneumatological questions more directly in his Christology left me puzzled.

Typical of my prior reading of Williams, I found this book to be lucid, erudite, intellectually rich, and irenic. Given the highly terminological debates he engages, some readers, however, may find the book too full of abstract language and, thus, inaccessible. This is definitely not a reason to dismiss the book. In fact, Williams’ careful, deliberate, and complex argument invites an assiduous reading. The reason: in effect, Williams calls upon the Church to rebuff the simplistic understandings of Incarnation that populate contemporary Christian imagination; and he passionately claims it is imperative that the Church continue to fathom the profundity of the inexhaustible mystery of Jesus Christ for discerning how to live in the world. Even as the intensity of contemplating Jesus Christ strains thought, language, and speech to their breaking point, we must plumb the depths of “the event of new creation in which finite humanity is so activated by the divine that we see . . . that the infinite realizes itself in loving self-gift for the sake of healing and remaking of the finite; that this finite life that is Jesus’ enacts the infinite in such a way that its loving agency permeates and transfigures the lives of those touched by it, and so transfigures the meanings of the entire material world” (250-251). That is why classical Christology matters today—it is the proper foundation for a theology of political, material, and ecological engagements.

What might such engagements look like? Let me turn to Williams himself to give one possible answer to this question. In April 2019, Williams gave his support to UK student strikes in protest over climate change. Williams participated in the opening day of non-violent action, organized by Extinction Rebellion, that initiated the group’s campaign of mass civil disobedience to call for the British government to recognize officially the climate crisis facing the world. Williams’ involvement in this campaign of non-violent action is not just a moral act. I would contend it is a theological act, deeply rooted in his Christology. Classical Christology teaches that Christ is the fullness of divine, holy life within the limits of creaturely life. Christ is the event that reveals the depth of connection not only between Creator and creation, but also the radical interdependency of all creation. The Christ event has so “charged”—healed and transformed—human agency thereby enabling a true embrace of finitude and renewing our priestly vocation to creation.[11] From a Bonhoefferian perspective, Williams would say that if Christ is the form of renewed humanity, and if all human relations, including our relations with the creation, whose materiality we share and depend upon, are reoriented toward the reality of Christ, then being-for-the-world in our political, cultural, and economic actions is a manifestation of “Christ’s underlying and ongoing agency” (204). As the Church joins other people, communities, and organizations in civil disobedience to put forward the case for the planet and the human race, especially its most vulnerable populations affected by climate change, before the powerful, its participation in such actions can be a “gift of unlocking . . . the ‘grace of sense’ that allows” us to see the material order of things “with durable, attentive love” (246).

As I slowly made my way through Williams’ remarkable book, absorbing its complexity and wisdom, I kept returning to words from St Symeon the New Theologian:

Your beauty is astounding,
Your face is beyond compare.
Your splendor is ineffable.
Your glory, all words transcends.
Your sweet kindness, O Christ our Master,
Exceeds our faltering earthy thoughts.
And this is why our longing,
And the love we feel for you
Outshines all love and desire
We mortals can ever know on earth.[12]

St Symeon’s poetic theology reminds me that it is Jesus Christ who defines for us what divinity truly is and what it truly means to be human, not our “faltering earthy thoughts.” The eternal Word made flesh “words” divinity and humanity. And as we take up the questions of how we are to speak about, of, and to Jesus Christ, not only are our schemes of language and imagination pressed to their conceptual limits. Hopefully, as Williams desires, our hearts will also be urged to turn back to Christ in “a deeper and steadier devotion” (xvi).

  1. Rowan Williams, The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014).

  2. Rowan Williams, “Response to Kerr, Hedley, Pickstock, Ward and Soskice,” Modern Theology 31:4 (2015), p. 634; cf. Graham Ward, “Metaphor in Bone,” Modern Theology 31:4 (2015), pp. 618-624.

  3. Williams, “Response,” p. 633.

  4. Williams, “Response,” p. 634.

  5. Williams, “Response,” p. 630.

  6. Rowan Williams, Christ the Heart of Creation (New York: Bloomsbury, 2018), p. 225. All future references to Christ the Heart of Creation will be identified parenthetically in this review.

  7. Williams, “Response,” p. 633.

  8. David Bentley Hart, “The Destiny of Christian Metaphysics,” in Thomas J. White, O.P. ed,. The Analogy of Being: Invention of the Antichrist or the Wisdom of God? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), p. 410.

  9. Williams, Christ the Heart of Creation, p. 7, writes, “I am not going to spend a great deal of time on those modern critiques of the classical framework that show a lack of awareness of exactly what was discussed in the development of that framework. Thus, the once popular complaint that claiming divinity and humanity to be equally predicable of Jesus Christ was simply to utter a contradiction (comparable to trying to describe a square circle) ignores the absolutely basic point which [Austin] Farrer was concerned to highlight.” In a footnote on the same page, Williams’ impatience with such critiques of classical theologies of Christ’s person is aimed at John Hick’s The Myth of God Incarnate, which Williams calls “a somewhat cavalier approach to what historic orthodoxy actually affirmed.”

  10. I was fortunate to hear an earlier version of parts of Williams’ thought on Bonhoeffer at the 2016 DuBose Lectures, School of Theology, University of the South (TN).

  11. In a 2009 speech, Rowan Williams, “Renewing the Face of the Earth: Human Responsibility and the Environment,” defines the human priestly relationship with creation as follows: “the human agent is created with the capacity to make sense of the environment and to move it into a closer relation with its creator by drawing out of it its capacity to become a sign of love and generosity.” Accessed on May 17, 2019,

  12. Prayer Book of the Early Christians, translated and edited by John A. McGuckin (Brewer, MA: Paraclete Press, 2011), p. 191.

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  1. I am profoundly struck by the simplicity and truth found in “only the Creator can exhibit fully what it is to be a creature.” Humans, as creatures in God’s creation, strive to be the creature we should be but fail. Upon reading that, I pictured God the Son communing in person with Adam and Eve in the garden and what that pre-fall relationship was like and how that Incarnation must have been telling to Adam. Because I understand the garden to be a place of perpetual provision, Adam had little distraction drawing his attention from his relationship with the Creator. The idea that we are to be more Christlike in our process of sanctification is further illumined by the idea that the Creator is our model because it is only He who can “exhibit fully” what we should be.

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